Back to Basics

The BBC has been told to go back to basics and concentrate on public service broadcasting if it wants to survive. 

James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation think tank, hailed the corporation for helping to make Britain not just a country but a nation, but warned that it was in danger of being killed off by the internet as more and more of us watch our favourite TV programmes and listen to radio on our laptops, Ipads and Iphones.  

“When everyone watches the world through their own screen on their own terms, we all have less in common,” he argued recently in the Times.  

I know what he means: I’ve just published a blog on togetherness, urging us all to think less in terms of them and us and more in terms of we when it comes to different generations and those with dementia.

Even more to the point, I have up my sleeve the perfect way for the BBC to redress this balance.  As Kirkup says, trying to fight YouTube and other internet streams on their own ground with youth-focused content hasn’t worked for a behemoth like the British Broadcasting Corporation – in fact it’s only succeeded in annoying existing listeners.

So, why not do what it does best: some good old-fashioned public service broadcasting – in the form of a weekly radio programme which, while it has multi-generational appeal, will hugely enhance the lives of older people (particularly lonely ones) and those with dementia?  To test the waters, trail it on local radio first.  Simples.

I am talking of soprano Lesley Garrett’s inspired idea to reintroduce the BBC’s defunct weekly radio programme Singing Together, this time with a slant towards the elderly and those living with one of the cruellest conditions there is, for which singing has been proven beyond doubt to be hugely beneficial. 

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Kirkup may have other things in mind when he argues that a BBC focused on public service programming “would offer the cultural common ground that an angry, divided country needs”.   But Brexit withstanding, he is right to say that if a family needs shared experiences and reference points, so does a nation. 

The original Singing Together radio programme was introduced in September 1939 at the outbreak of the second world war to comfort evacuated children separated from their families and help them feel less displaced. 

By the time I was enjoying it as a nine-year-old in my home counties’ convent Britain was into the ’60s and the war was well over.  But I can still remember the sense of reassuring continuity and community that it engendered as I belted out One Man Went To Mow knowing that all over the country hundreds of others were singing the same song at exactly the same time.

The programme, originally aired on the home service for schools, had been moved to 11am on Radio 4 by the time I encountered it.  It ran for just 20 minutes, presented in the friendly Yorkshire tones of William Appleby, who told us a bit about the song – its history and some of its simple musical characteristics – sang a couple of lines and then invited us youngsters to join in.

As many of you may know, I lobbied Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, to take up Miss Garrett’s idea.  He politely refused.   But as the nation suffers a collective nervous breakdown over Brexit perhaps now’s the time to go back to the corporation, urge it to heed Kirkup’s warnings, return to its roots and its public service remit, and reintroduce a radio programme that will bring the nation together to sing.  

It would be a great way to save the BBC from being killed off by the listening and viewing habits of the YouTube generation – while at the same time providing a wonderful sense of belonging to those of an older generation whose lives are all too often lonely and isolated.

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